Folk rock’s clearing house assembles a wealth of archival rarities. “Right up my country lane,” says Jim Irvin.
Fairport Convention’s first flush is anthologised, Yoko Ono’s feminist diktats are re-appraised, and Bowie cracks.
Fairport Convention Come All Ye: The First Ten Years UMC. CD/DL/LP
On July 6, 1966, 21-year-old Ashley Hutchings, a trainee journalist, made the following entry in his diary: “Called on Simon and suggested we form a folk rock group with him and Rich Thompson. We agreed to give it a go.” What they gave a go became a key pillar in British music, with a reach and influence far beyond its fame or sales, inspiring Led Zeppelin, Fleet Foxes and dozens in between, not to mention the impact individual members Hutchings, Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson have had upon artists in their wake. As the lyric to Sandy and Ashley’s song Come All Ye ran: “Come all ye roving minstrels and together we will try, to rouse the spirit of the earth and move the rolling sky.” It was a laudable ambition. Fairport Convention has been not so much a band as a stylistic hotel in which many talented musicians have tarried awhile. The records in this decade (1968’s Fairport Convention to 1978’s Tipplers Tales), though widely varied, were clearly cut from the same tree. Whether a track is fronted by Denny, Swarbrick, Thompson or whoever, you can just tell it’s Fairport by some ineffable essence; even though no one person was constant through all those lineups, that essence hung around. The Cropredy years, which began when they regrouped in 1985, recast Fairport as a tribute act to itself, celebrating a recipe that couldn’t be exactly replicated, because the earlier records pivoted on the youth, inexperience and ground-breaking momentum of the players. Revisiting the catalogue and writing new works in that vein couldn’t summon the same spirit of optimistic questing, fuelled by constant upheaval and the continued, vain hope of some record sales. The cottage-industry, festival-hosting iteration of the band literally isn’t as hungry. Compiled by experienced Fairport archivist Andrew Batt, the man behind the huge Sandy Denny collection, this seven-disc whopper beckons to fellow travellers by representing some of the betterknown works in lesser-known forms – a Swarb-free take of A Sailor’s Life, the abandoned ‘Manor album’, the unreleased OZ single, Old Grey Whistle Test appearances, the odd B-side, and so on: “50 unreleased and hard to find tracks” sprinkled with gems from each album in that decade. You could
“NOT SO MUCH A BAND AS A STYLISTIC HOTEL IN WHICH MANY TALENTED MUSICIANS HAVE TARRIED AWHILE.”
argue this is a mixed blessing. For example, the unadorned Sailor’s Life, while intriguing, is at best a classic moment from a different angle or, at worst, clearly inferior. Come All Ye itself, which opened 1969’s Liege & Lief, is here represented by an earlier run-through, obviously without the overdubs and gang vocals added to the master. Cool, if you’d prefer a solo Sandy vocal, but not really as rousing as the released version. It’s a bit like watching an edit of Casablanca with slightly different performances and Dooley Wilson missing. That caveat aside, it’s still a delight to hear this band’s unique evolution unfolding in a parallel dimension. The very first track is Time Will Show The Wiser from the 1968 Polydor debut, its Byrdsy jangle and a little quotation from I Feel Fine indicating where their heads were at early on – and demonstrating that 18-year-old Thompson is already a player to be reckoned with – before the hushed Decameron from the same source, with Iain Matthews singing, suggests an interest in historical atmosphere is already present. Engaging sessions and alternative takes from What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking, two early high-water marks, complete this disc. Disc two has some fudgy BBC sessions, a beautiful Ballad Of Easy Rider, previously only on Thompson’s Guitar, Vocal compilation, some Liege & Lief cast-offs, including Sandy’s shiversome first tilt at Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood, and the lengthy Full House outtake Bonny Bunch Of Roses with Swarb fronting; a nice performance which doesn’t quite lift off. You can hear why Sloth won out. The next disc scoops up bracing versions of Full House material from a French TV show called Pop2, some dollops of Angel Delight and off-air recordings from the 1974 BBC TV film, The Man They Could Not Hang where a later line-up re-recorded songs from 1971’s Babbacombe Lee. Not massively different, but this evocative, undervalued material is always good to hear again. Disc four contains the fabled ‘Manor album’ of 1973, scrapped at a very early, scratch-vocal stage, by the sound of it, featuring short-lived members Roger Hill and Tom Farnell. The biggest surprise here is the off-message Sympathy For The Devil groove of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, lost when this stuff was revisited by the next lineup, fronted by Sandy’s husband, Trevor Lucas, for Rosie and Nine. An unreleased live show from Fairfield Hall, Croydon by that line-up occupies disc six. The fifth disc includes the rare TV performance of White Dress – Sandy in particularly fine voice – that’s better than the Rising For The Moon version, and an ‘alternative take’ of the peerless One More Chance from that album, sounding more like an alternative mix to me; I’d recognise Mattacks’ fills anywhere. The final disc stars the same line-up’s fabled appearance at the LA Troubadour, a rousing, confident show caught on February 1, 1974, a week after the Sydney dates used for Live Convention. To sum up: half a century of windfalls from the tree – all the work you’ve only heard about but can now actually hear – this is a completist’s delight in drab artwork.